Virtual Reality - a new tool in the fight against workplace sexual harassment?

Virtual Reality – a New Tool in the Fight Against Workplace Sexual Harassment?

Despite the ground-breaking #metoo movement which has led to increased awareness about the prevention of and action against sexual harassment, it’s still on the rise in the workplace.

According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, the incidences of workplace sexual harassment in this country have climbed from 21 per cent in 2012 to 33 per cent in 2018. In America it’s a similar situation with the Women in the Workplace 2018 study showing that 35 per cent of women experienced sexual harassment at work despite 95 per cent of companies having sexual harassment policies in place.

It’s not surprising then that some employers are now investigating new methods of preventing staff from being sexually harassed at work, especially given how detrimental the issue can be for staff morale, retention, productivity and company reputation.

Workplace sexual harassment in Australia

The 2018 report conducted by the Australian Human Rights Commission titled ‘Everyone’s Business’ proved what many already knew – workplace sexual harassment is still a large and widespread problem that continues to grow.

“The results of the survey are perhaps more timely and relevant in 2018 than ever before, with the huge surge in public concern about sexual harassment generated by the #MeToo movement around the world, including in Australia,” said Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins, in the report’s foreword.

The research outlined the three most common forms of sexual harassment at work:

  • Offensive, sexually suggestive comments or jokes
  • Inappropriate physical contact
  • Unwelcome touching, hugging, cornering or kissing

And uncovered the following findings:

  • Those working in information, media and telecommunications reported significantly higher rates of harassment compared to the national average.
  • Women (39 per cent) were more likely to experience workplace sexual harassment than men (26 per cent), with men far more likely to be perpetrators across the board.
  • Indigenous and Torres Strait Islanders, those with a disability, and young Australians were also more likely to be victims.

“It showed that 45 per cent of people between the ages of 18 and 29 had experienced sexual harassment,” said Ms Jenkins.

“In fact, of people who are just starting out in work, 15 to 17 year-olds, one in five of them had experienced sexual harassment…that sort of makes sense in terms of who has the power in workplaces.”

Additionally, the research worryingly revealed that when it comes to sexual harassment at work, it often goes unpunished. Only 17 per cent of people made formal complaints to their employers, and in 19 per cent of cases that were reported there were no consequences for the perpetrators.

Disturbingly, a substantial proportion (40 per cent) of incidents were witnessed by a co-worker, yet the witness only intervened in 27 per cent of cases (a massive drop compared to 2012 when half of all bystanders took action).

“We know from our research that many people are afraid to report their experiences of unwelcome sexual conduct out of fear that they won’t be believed, that it’s not worth it, that they’ll be ostracised and that it could damage their career,” said Ms Jenkins.

Virtual reality the newest trend for workplace training

According to American business solutions review platform, G2 Crowd, the current sexual harassment training undertaken by HR departments doesn’t actually work in reducing the number of incidents that take place. Traditionally the training has been provided in person or in the form of computer-based training (CBT) incorporating text, slideshow and video learning.

However, G2 Crowd believes that allowing employees to “experience” sexual harassment from the victim’s point of view via virtual reality, is the way to effect real change.

Setting the bar in the development of this ground-breaking VR training technology is Morgan Mercer of Vantage Point. Her fully immersive training increases the retention of preventable techniques as well as bystander intervention and it’s a fast-growing industry. The VR software and hardware market is projected to reach $40.4 billion by 2020, and according to IDC, more than 1 billion people are expected to use VR regularly by next year.

We’ve already seen that VR is improving a variety of industries, such as physical therapy treatment, helping children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) overcome social interaction disabilities, and advancing surgical training. And it’s only going to become more instrumental across other industries, as well as homes and schools, making it an interesting option for the challenge of sexual harassment within the workplace.

Steps that employers can take

As an employer, protecting employees from sexual harassment and taking appropriate action if it occurs is important for a number of reasons. Apart from the legal obligations, looking after the emotional and physical wellbeing of staff should also be a priority on moral grounds. Supporting staff also works to ensure employees are engaged and motivated, which leads to increased productivity and reduced absenteeism.

Having strong, effective and enforceable sexual harassment policies can also improve your reputation as employer of choice. Outside of Virtual Reality, here are a few other tips that employers can undertake to protect and support staff.

  • Ensure all staff members undergo professional sexual harassment training, including managers and leaders.
  • Consider conducting an audit to learn more about behaviours and attitudes towards sexual harassment within your workplace.
  • Require all managers to take a firm, no tolerance approach to sexual harassment and let it be known throughout the company.
  • Encourage staff to speak up if they have experienced or witnessed a case of sexual harassment.
  • Respond quickly and appropriately to all instances of sexual harassment, no matter how large or small or who is involved.
  • Consider involving the police when required, as some sexual harassment is a criminal offense (e.g. indecent exposure and stalking) and employers can also be held liable for the perpetrator’s actions.

For more information on sexual harassment policies visit the Australian Human Rights Commission.